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Desert Star Playhouse’s ‘My Big Fat Utah Wedding’ reprisal packed with laughs, Utah humor

January 22, 2019 GMT

“It’s always funny at Desert Star.”

That slogan is all I was armed with as I headed to Murray for the Desert Star Playhouse’s production “Wicked-er: It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

It was fall 2012. I was a newlywed working on my degree in print journalism with a nearly full-time marketing job, but had just picked up an internship at the Daily Herald which meant 19 hours more of work on an already packed schedule. I was tired (when am I not?) and had absolutely no idea what to expect when I finally made it to the theater.

All I knew was I needed a night out, and was ready for some “funny.” Little did I know…

The Desert Star Playhouse has been around for over 30 years now and is housed in an epically wood-paneled theater space punctuated with trophy animal heads and nods to past shows. It’s the perfect environment for a night of melodrama and even includes some great photo ops and a general store for those milling around its packed halls waiting for showtime.

As I wrote in my first response to the Desert Star, “Dating back to the 18th century, the term melodrama refers to a form of stage production that juxtaposes acting with music. Melodramas usually consist of an exaggerated plot, stock characters and a fight-evil-and-promote-good kind of theme. … This world of melodrama, of over-the-top theater, was the one I grew up in — where good battled evil regularly (in slow motion, with fantastic strobe light special effects), and in the end, the good guy won, and the day was always saved.”

Though my connections to theater lessened with age, work and lack of time, I always held on to that love of well-timed jokes and over-dramatically funny showmanship. Add in some classic plunky piano music to drive the songs and the plot, and I’m beyond sold.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Desert Star’s current pièce de résistance, “My Big Fat Utah Wedding.” The show is a 15th anniversary reprisal hyped to be “Bigger! Fatter! Utah-ier!” and, well, the cast delivered.

For those not fortunate enough to have graced the halls of the Desert Star, the theater specializes in comedy, with an emphasis in farce, parody and satire. If you want to see a ridiculously popular or classic theater production in its original form, you should probably plan on going somewhere else. If you don’t mind those same shows or even popular films in spoofed form and packed with references to pop culture or the opportunity to laugh until you cry, then the Desert Star is definitely the place for you.

Interestingly enough, “My Big Fat Utah Wedding,” which was originally performed at Desert Star in 2004-2005, became Utah’s longest running theatrical production with literally 18 months of shows, easily earning the title of the most popular Desert Star show ever.

Scott Holman, the Desert Star’s Artistic Director and over 20 year veteran of the theater, not only wrote and directed the original show but is heading the current limited run revival.

“Rehearsals have been a blast,” Holman said in a press release. “It’s fun to see these nutty characters back on the stage.”

“I’m still amazed when people tell me they never got a chance to see the show the first time around,” Holman continued in a comment on the show’s record-setting first run. “Well, now they’ll have their chance.”

I was able to visit with Holman regarding one of the venue’s previous productions and loved his insights into how the unique theater runs.

“The thing that we have to offer people that are looking for a fun night and laughs is our energy and presentation — that’s where we have to set ourselves apart,” Holman said previously, of comments he shared with his casts. “I told them, ‘You guys have to come in every night and play these characters like it’s the very last chance you have to play in a show ever in your lives.’”

The audience is the priority during the creative process, from start to finish.

“When you’re so exposed to it, I end up caring less what I like and more what I think our audience as a whole will like,” Holman said in a past interview. “This show is one that we’ve done before but, as with all of our shows, we never ever just bring the script back. … It always goes through a complete overhaul process.”

The goal? To make it funnier, more timely and packed with characters and jokes the audience can’t help but love.

The premise for “My Big Fat Utah Wedding” is along the lines of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Gretchen, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is 26 and unmarried, much to the consternation of her devoted parents. This fact spawns frustration and some pretty great musical interludes before the character Dax shows up at Gretchen’s family diner and it’s love at first sight.

The pair experience a whirlwind romance courtesy of an onstage slideshow with shout-outs to iconic Utah venues and date hotspots before having to break the news to Gretchen’s parents that Dax isn’t a member of the church. Add in some tough competition and witty zingers from rival Annie, the sweet, hilarious innocence of best friend Marma, and the ridiculous antics of some pretty quirky family members, and you’ve got the set-up for non-stop laughs.

Francesca Mintowt-Czyz starred as Gretchen with Richie T. Steadman as Dax in our showing of the play, with Madison Bartell as Marma, Camee Faulk as Annie, Sarah McDonald as Betty (Gretchen’s mom) and Lee Daily as Heber (Gretchen’s Dad). Dan Larrinaga and Daniel Atkin are noted in the program as Dax’s friends Carlos and Doug, respectively, but probably only because it would have taken an entire sheet to in-depth describe all the characters they portrayed, from dubious wedding planners to Dax’s quirky parents, Gretchen’s long-married grandparents and all-star primary tune-singing rock stars.

This was not the first time I’ve seen Camee Faulk in a Desert Star show, and I couldn’t help but still be amazed and entertained by her quick quips and characterizations. She, along with Larrinaga, McDonald, Daily and Akin especially gave the air of seasoned Desert Star performers, meaning plenty of physical humor, lots of laughs and even an occasional breakdown of laughter onstage that sends the fourth wall crumbling around you in the best possible way.

Hands down my favorite moments came in times like that, where genuinely funny, witty zingers leave you wondering if it was scripted or if you just got really lucky.

Adding to the unique atmosphere of the Desert Star Playhouse is the fact that guests are seated around tables and provided with popcorn and the opportunity to order a plethora of tasty foods that fill the centerfold of the newspaper program.

I was impressed by how quickly and subtly servers make their way around the tight venue, taking orders and refilling drinks while not detracting from the comedy unfolding onstage. I thoroughly enjoyed the tender, juicy and flavorful steak skewers with a soft, delicious baked potato while my husband sampled the chicken fingers and fries.

The food was incredible, and I’m totally unsurprised that it’s available for order from DoorDash, so you don’t even have to go to a show to enjoy the scrumptious meals (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to). The only problem with eating during the show was trying not to choke when some well-placed humor forced a laugh mid-swallow.

Overall, Desert Star still has it all — original shows, talented actors, live piano and an incomparable ambience combined with food and post-show “Kicking Country” Western olios that mix country music with Desert Star comedy for some knee-slapping, belly-laughing fun and a chance to see the cast in a whole new, fantastically fun way.